D.c. Haggling Delays Aid Bill, Forces Closure of PLO Office

A successful campaign by pro-life lawmakers to ban U.S. funds to international family planning programs that include abortions has put the $2.1 billion in a state of legislative flux.

The dispute over the foreign aid bill, which includes $3 billion in aid to Israel, also contributed to the lapse of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which allows for U.S. assistance to the Palestine Liberation Organization and permits the PLO to maintain its office here.

Without that legislation, which is known commonly as MEPFA and which officially expired midnight Tuesday, the State Department must close the PLO’s Washington office and halt funding to the Palestinian Authority, which is due to receive $75 million in cash assistance this year.

The authority, which is run by Yasser Arafat, is due to receive part of the aid in the middle of November. The money cannot be delivered if the measure is not extended.

“We’re going to implement the letter of the law,” a State Department official said Wednesday, adding that “it just takes time.”

He said the State Department would be sending a letter mandating that the PLO close its Washington office until MEPFA is extended.

The PLO office opened Wednesday for business as usual and in a terse response to the recent developments, an official there said, “We will obey whatever the law says.”

By the end of the day, however, PLO officials had reportedly been instructed by the State Department not to answer their telephones.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem that he was “stunned at the disgrace of what happened.”

“The silliness is that Israel is going to continue to talk to the PLO and a superpower has just disengaged itself,” said Zogby, who is also co-president of Builders for Peace, a joint Jewish-Arab group that seeks economic development for Palestinian-controlled territories.

The developments came after Clinton administration officials, seeing that the legislation was going to be tied up amid the foreign aid imbroglio, launched an unsuccessful campaign to convince Congress to pass a short-term extension before it expired.

But Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), wielding immense power as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blocked the extension. He said he was dissatisfied with unrelated negotiations with the administration over his plan to drastically reorganize the State Department.

Although negotiations continue with Helms to allow a vote for a short-term MEPFA extension, there is no end in sight to the feud over abortion rights in the foreign aid measure.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the foreign aid bill, prohibiting the United States from spending any money or organizations that financially support overseas abortions and banning funds to the United Nations Population Fund, until it withdraws its family planning organization from China.

The Senate was expected to reject the amendment Wednesday. The entire bill is then expected to return to a House-Senate conference committee, which already failed to resolve the dispute once last week.

President Clinton has vowed to veto the measure if it includes the abortion language. Such a move would be the first presidential veto in recent memory of foreign aid legislation, according to observers.

Beyond the abortion language debate, Congress has overwhelmingly expressed support for the foreign aid legislation, which also includes $2.1 billion for Egypt and an additional $80 million for refugee resettlement in Israel.

Despite the delay in passing the foreign aid bill, Israel has already received 12 percent of its annual $3 billion in U.S. aid.

Congress included the money in a measure passed last month that allows the federal government to continue functioning even though the fiscal year has ended.

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